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West Virginia State football coach John Pennington leads a Yellow Jackets team picked to finish third in the Mountain East this season.

Fare thee well, Shepherd and UVa-Wise. Greetings, Wheeling University and Frostburg State.

The shuffling of the Mountain East Conference football lineup begins this season. The Rams packed up for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and the Cavs are now in the South Atlantic Conference. With those two original MEC members gone, another original member, Wheeling, will begin its maiden voyage in Division II football, while the Bobcats make the jump from Division III to Division II.

Even with football stalwart Shepherd out of the picture, the MEC schedule remains a tough road for all of its members. Below are capsule previews of each team, in order of finish in the MEC preseason coaches poll.

Notre Dame – The Falcons are picked to finish exactly where they finished last season, at the top of the standings. Not only did NDC finish the 2018 regular season at 11-0, it reached the Division II national semifinals.

Notre Dame returns top-level players on both sides. Offensively, running back Jaleel McLaughlin will buoy the unit. He set an NCAA record last season for rushing yards by a freshman, racking up 2,572 with 18 touchdowns.

“We knew he was fast,” NDC coach told reporters at MEC media day. “He was really fast. Did I think in a million years he would come in and do the little things? It’s easy for freshman running backs to run the football. That’s the easy part. … To be competent enough in protection as a freshman and the durability, the amount of times we asked him to carry the football … that’s a lot on put on a freshman.”

On defense, senior defensive end Sha’Haun Williams comes back after totaling 20 sacks last season. Notre Dame’s was the top scoring defense in the MEC last season, allowing just 18.1 points per game.

Fairmont StateThe Falcons of Fairmont are brimming with veteran experience. FSU returns 17 starters from last season. Ten of them are on offense, led by quarterback Takwan Crews-Naylor. That should allow Fairmont State to remain near the top, if not all the way at the top, of the conference in scoring. FSU led the Mountain East last year with 39.4 points per game.

West Virginia StateThe Yellow Jackets were picked to finish third in the conference, the highest preseason ranking the program has ever earned in the MEC. Getting Austin Hensley back under center has a lot to do with that.

The former WVU walk-on threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Charleston, but was lost for the rest of the season to injury. He’ll also have a deep backfield with Calil Wilkins, Carl Garmon and former Buffalo running back Dylan Lucas all returning.

Defensively, the Yellow Jackets lose their top three tacklers, but former George Washington standout Dustin Crouser returns to anchor the unit.

CharlestonThe Golden Eagles have plenty coming back, including eight starters on offense, but the team has some gaping holes to fill, especially on defense. Two of the departed are pass rushers now on NFL rosters – John Cominsky, a fourth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, and Kahzin Daniels, a rookie free agent pickup of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Junior Kenny Randall, who recorded 13 ½ tackles for loss last season, will need to step up there.

Offensively, eight starters may return, but leading passer Mason Olszewski and leading rusher Jimmy Wheeler both graduated. Whoever does start at quarterback for the Golden Eagles will have the services of receiver Mike Strachan, who caught 48 passes for 1,007 yards (best on the team and second in the MEC) and eight scores.

UrbanaThe Blue Knights return 10 starters on defense including All-MEC linebacker Duray Hall and defensive lineman Mikal Tolliver, along with leading rusher Isaiah Young (873 yards, 5 touchdowns in 2018). But Urbana will need to do a much better job of finishing the job this season. The Blue Knights started the year at 4-1, but ended it at 5-6.

West LibertyInjuries helped a Hilltoppers slide in 2018 to a 3-8 finish, including losing six of their last seven games. But 15 starters return overall, including defensive backs Josh Ojo, an All-MEC first-teamer last year, and Logan Deri, an All-MEC second-teamer.

Glenville StateThe Pioneers have a new head coach in former Glenville quarterback Mike Kellar. Kellar will see a familiar face in the GSC backfield in former FSU running back Mario Pender, a 1,000-yard rusher for the Pioneers last year. The MEC’s leading tackler, Glenville linebacker Dominic Cizauskas, also returns.

ConcordThe Mountain Lions will try to rebound from a 2-9 2018 campaign, the team’s third straight 2-9 finish. Kyle Akin returns at quarterback for the team.

Frostburg StateThe Bobcats made the Division III playoffs each of the last two seasons, but the jump to a bigger division won’t be an easy one. The team must replace quarterback Connor Cox, a four-year starter and the FSU career leader in attempts, completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offense.

West Virginia WesleyanThe Bobcats of Buckhannon have a new head coach, promoting offensive line coach Tony Testa to the job after Del Smith resigned. WVWC hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2011 and went 1-10 last season.

WheelingAmid the turmoil already on the Cardinals’ campus – the university eliminated several majors due to financial dire straits and the Jesuits ended their academic affiliation with the school – coach Zac Bruney will try to guide the team through its first varsity season. It went 8-0 in exhibition games last year, facing mostly college junior varsity rosters.

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.